WikiLeaks' real victim: old-school code of trust

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks' indiscriminate release of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables wasn't brave journalism or a victory for transparency. Rather, it erodes the code of trust – the relationships – between journalists and diplomats that enabled principled reporting.

The WikiLeaks dump of US embassy cables last month was a reckless act. It is a far cry from the responsible reporting on foreign affairs with which I am familiar.

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When I was the State Department spokesman in the Reagan administration, Bernard Kalb, then diplomatic correspondent for NBC, called me about a tip that the bad guys in Beirut, Lebanon, had captured and were holding an American CIA officer.

“Bernie,” I said, “I’ll only talk off the record about that.”

“No way,” Bernie replied, “If it’s off the record I can’t use it.”

“Well, that’s the deal,” I said. “See what your network says.”

The network agreed to the deal. I told Bernie that the officer being held was the CIA station chief in Beirut. We didn’t know whether the captors knew of his CIA association. If Bernie went with the story, the officer would certainly be killed. Honorably, the network did not run the story. Sadly, the captors tortured the officer, discovered his identity, and killed him.

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The importance of relationships

That was a classic example of trust between a diplomatic correspondent and a government official. It is the kind of relationship observed regularly between State Department officials in Washington and US diplomatic correspondents.

Sometimes the journalist is checking out a questionable rumor. Sometimes the diplomat is offering background on a situation that for good reasons cannot then, or ever, be made public. For example: Dissidents given secret sanctuary in a US embassy; a foreign diplomat barred from travel because he is actually a high-ranking intelligence officer recruiting American nuclear scientists; US diplomats caught outside the US Embassy in Tehran when it was seized by extremists, but hidden safely for months by diplomats of other countries.

Exchanges and agreements between responsible journalists and senior diplomats go on each day with clear understanding about what can, or should, be published.

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The consequences

Many of the cables revealed by WikiLeaks are of little consequence. In many respects the dispatches to Washington of US diplomats abroad echo the work of foreign correspondents. They report on formal discussions with foreign leaders, then attempt interpretations of what the motives and intentions of foreign governments may really be.

The peccadillos and peculiarities of a foreign head of state may be useful to chronicle.

One cable referred to Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and its president, Dmitry Medvedev, as Batman and Robin. Mr. Putin was not amused. But Russia is hardly likely to sever diplomatic relations. Another embassy cable lauded French President Nicolas Sarkozy as a sturdy friend of America, but also called him “mercurial.” Half a dozen French columnists might have written the same thing.

As one of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s foreign counterparts told her: “You should see what we say about you.”

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Disclosure of US moves to remove a Pakistani stockpile of highly enriched uranium is much more significant. Working to keep such material from hostile hands may have been immensely important. Revealing it may jeopardize that effort.

Similarly, reports that Arab leaders privately urged the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity can hardly have resonated well in their capitals. During my stint in government I sat through many meetings in foreign capitals with heads of state who blasted rivals and other governments but who in public proclaimed lasting friendship with the same characters and entities.

Trusted diplomatic correspondents know how to garner information and inject their dispatches with depth and detail without embarrassing sources that must be protected.

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WikiLeaks’s indiscriminate dumping of tens of thousands of purloined classified documents into the public domain for friend and foe to read is neither responsible journalism nor does it strike a blow for transparency. It is the work of a politically motivated activist intent on doing America harm.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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